How NOT to Raise a Bystander

Bullying. Mean girls. Aggressive behavior.

It’s the terms du jour right now, and everyone has an opinion on it. Some parents think it is just part of life, and others believe it is crushing our kids.

I think it just sucks.

Unfortunately, I do think bullying and mean behavior will never go away; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying.

Recently in response to an article I wrote about BS Excuses Parents Give for Mean Girls, someone commented that the incident between a seventh grade girl and a group that ostracized her could have been diffused if one brave student had stepped in to intervene on her behalf. One brave student acknowledging the behavior or getting up to sit with the girl left alone could have sent a powerful message to the “group.”

This got me thinking. While I put the onus on being a brave parent, I didn’t continue to connect the dots…one brave parent can create brave kids. Brave kids make good things happen.

A few years back all three of my girls were having sleep overs at our house with good friends. While they were eating their pizza, some of the older kids started discussing how they knew a girl who lied a lot. The conversation started getting really mean-spirited, so just as I was about to intervene, a little voice piped up and said, “That girl is my neighbor. I know her, and she isn’t lying about those things and I think it’s mean for you to say that.”

BAM! That little six-year-old pip squeak shut it down. It was very brave of her and I admired her courage to stand up for her friend despite being the youngest in the group.

Recent efforts to combat bullying have been focused on the role of bystanders.  Some research even estimates that fifty percent of all bullying events stop when a bystander decides to intervene. Unfortunately, 88 percent of the time bullying happens in front of other kids, but only one in five kids will intervene.


It’s a tough call as a parent. I worry about my child’s safety, but I also want them to stand up for what’s right, and especially for those that can’t stand up for themselves. But standing up to someone who is seen as either more popular or more powerful is a pretty big ask of a kid.


And it’s not just kids that face this problem. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered despite the fact that dozens of witnesses heard the attack. Psychologists called this the Genovese Syndrome or Bystander Effect. Simply put, as the number of witnesses to a crime increases, the chance that anyone will intervene goes down. Most people assume that someone else will help, and it ends up that no one does.

Famed novelist and juvenile protection advocate Andrew Vachss said this: “Life is a fight, but not everyone’s a fighter. Otherwise, bullies would be an endangered species.

Someone has got to fight back.

Most kids want to do the right thing, but aren’t sure how to do it. According to Ken Rigby, author of Children and Bullying: How Parents and Educators Can Reduce Bullying at School  you should start a discussion with your child, but don’t push too hard.“Parents should not tell their children what to do as a bystander. Instead, they should listen to their children and ask them what they would do in certain situations — sort of wondering out loud, to spark a conversation.”

So how do we encourage our kids not to be bystanders yet remain safe? Here are a few tips:

+ Don’t join in.  Yeah, this is easier than it sounds otherwise the term “mob mentality” wouldn’t be used so regularly.  Make sure your child knows that laughing at or encouraging mean behavior is as bad as doing it. And simply by watching it happen is subliminally telling the bully that it is okay.

Take away the attention. Some kids are bullies merely to get attention or make their friends laugh. Encourage your child to walk away (and bring her friends) from a situation where one kid is picking on another. Merely taking away the audience can often stop an incident. If they say something sarcastic like “There’s nothing to see here” even better.

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Reporting is not tattling. Encourage your child to report bullying incidents to a trusted adult. If they are worried about being viewed as a tattle-tale or ratting out their friends, encourage them to do it anonymously. Another option is to give teachers, coaches, etc. a heads up that bad things are happening without giving specifics. For example: “You should watch the girls locker room after fifth period, but please don’t mention that I told you.”

Some studies have shown that kids do not believe their teachers or other adults will do anything about the bullying incidents. Encourage your child to continue to report to other adults and build a case documenting the situation because at the end of the day, they could eventually be a witness to a crime and not just poor behavior.

+ Bullying is not private. Some research states that kids do not get involved with bullying incidents between other children because they believe it is none of their business. Stress that if another child is being threatened physically or verbally, it is not private and someone should step in. Also, encourage empathy by talking to your child about how he or she would feel if they were the target of bullying and no one intervened.

Stick up for victims, but not directly. Sometimes sticking up for the bullying victim can make the situation worse. For example, a girl defending a boy or a younger kid stopping an incident for an older kid can further increase the teasing a victim receives. Encourage your child to step in but they don’t have to defend the person. A simple, “Hey, the teacher wants to see you” then leading the victim away can change the course of an event.

+ Physical altercations should never be ignored. Kids should assess the situation and determine whether he or she should get an adult or try to distract the bully. Sometimes a loud, “Hey, what are you doing” can be enough to diffuse a situation; however discourage your child from intervening physically.

Safety in numbers. Bullies often target those they think are weaker or a kid they feel is a loner. Sometimes the best way to prevent bullying is to be a friend to a potential target. This could be as simple as walking to class together, sitting with them at lunch or hanging out before school.

Not sure how to talk to your son or daughter about bystander behavior? Visit for more information. ReachOut is an information and support service that uses evidence based principles and technology to help teens and young adults who are facing tough times and struggling with mental health issues. All content is written by teens and young adults, for teens and young adults, to meet them where they are, and help them recognize their own strengths in order to overcome their difficulties and/or seek help if necessary. The Inspire USA Foundation oversees ReachOut.


Five BS Excuses Parents Make for Mean Girls

I talked to a friend of mine the other night who told me a heart wrenching story about how a group of 7th grade girls literally got up from a lunch table and moved when her daughter sat down at it. They certainly had a good reason to do it. After all, an 8th grade hottie asked her daughter to the dance and (gasp) she said yes. Unbeknownst to her the boy was verbally taken and off-limits. Yes, I know this sounds like Mean Girls, Part Deux but in fact it wasn’t. It’s just another day in a garden variety middle school in a small New York town.

As much as the girls’ vile behavior upset me, it’s what my friend told me next that really got my blood pressure boiling. When my friend called one of the girls’ moms — someone she has known for more than a decade — the response was this: “Oh, I don’t think it was a big deal. I just don’t think they are as close anymore. I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding.”

Um, what the what what?

I get it. It is a hard thing to imagine that your sweet little girl can also be Regina George but are we really that naive? Are we so blinded by the love we feel for our kids that we refuse to believe they are capable of unkind behavior towards someone else’s child, someone else’s little girl?

Regina George

I worry sometimes about my own three girls. Although I know their hearts are kind, I wonder are their minds strong enough to know right from wrong in a moment of weakness, of jealousy, of rage. Or when they see someone they admire acting cruel, will they have the courage to act appropriately? It’s a lot to ask of a young girl and it’s crazy to think they won’t make mistakes.

To be clear, I do not believe that one bad incident does a mean girl make. There is a difference between a child that makes a bad judgment call, and one who out-and-out torments another kid. But, I do believe that the more excuses we make for our children, the more likely they are to do it again. And again. And again.

I read somewhere once that children need to be raised not managed. This is so true. If you hear yourself uttering one of these phrases below, ask yourself, is this how I really want my child to act?

Then take a moment to close your eyes, and imagine it’s your child, your little girl. How would you want another parent to respond? How would you feel if your child was ostracized, and one of the following was the excuses you received:

5.  Your daughter doesn’t seem to be interested in being part of the group anymore, so my daughter and the rest of the girls just don’t talk to her as much. Not everyone has to be best friends. Oh, the classic passive aggressive “it’s not me it’s you” defense. That will work well when she grows up and is expected to actually get along with people “outside of her group.”

4. My daughter said it really wasn’t that big of a deal, and really, shouldn’t the girls work it out on their own? What if the police said that to Charlie Manson’s cult? “I know Charlie is a little crazy, but really, can’t you guys just figure out how to get along with him?” Seriously, when did we get so lazy as parents that we can’t take 15 minutes to talk to our kids about the difference between wrong and right? Why will we drive them hours across state lines to sports tournaments but we can’t spend ten minutes to sort out bad behavior. Yes, kids need to learn to work it out, but there are also times when parents need to step in and course correct. All it takes is one parent to be brave enough to actually, well, parent their kid, and it can make a huge difference.
3. It’s not my daughter’s fault that your daughter is so sensitive. Seriously? There are millions of documented incidents of girls out-and-out traumatizing other girls — some of which are supposed to be their best friends! Don’t automatically blame the other girl. Make your daughter take at least a small portion of responsibility. Reflecting on one’s behavior and understanding your role in a situation is a pretty important life skill.
2. It wasn’t really my daughter being mean, it was her friends. The innocent bystander excuse. Lovely. Because as long as you don’t participate, you’re not really doing anything wrong.
1. Girls will be girls. This is the one that really gets my pants on fire. Since the dawn of time we have been saying girls will be girls. As women, are we not tired of this? As parents, haven’t we all had enough? Wouldn’t it be nice to take the negative connotation off of this phrase and turn it into a positive? This phrase should be abolished. Sometimes a girl just is actually mean, but most mean girls are created, not born that way. We should never use this excuse for bad behavior.
My friend’s daughter will be okay. Fortunately she had other friends to fall back on, and she learned a tough lesson early on in life; but that doesn’t mean every girl treated poorly will have that happy ending.
Let’s stop making excuses for our girls. Let’s start raising them up by not accepting excuses for putting others down.
It starts with one brave parent.
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Does Your Kid Bully You?

It used to be that kids were scared of their parents. Now parents seem scared of their kids.

A TIME magazine article came out recently that I found fascinating. “How Children Have Become Their Parents’ Bullies” underscored something that I feel like I have seen time and time again — parents so scared of upsetting their child that they give in to their every whim.

The piece begins with a situation we have all lived out a thousand times. A mom is in a toy store to buy a birthday present. Her son throws a fit because he wants the toy. Instead of sticking to her guns, the beaten-down woman relents and ends up purchasing not one, but two toys. Lesson learned for the boy: if you are relentless in your whining, no means maybe, which turns into Mom will do whatever she has to do to get out of the store without the manager calling the Department of Child Services.

When our kids are younger, I believe we relent for fear of embarrassment. It sucks when you are at the grocery store and your child is lying in the middle of the aisle with snot running down the side of her nose because you won’t buy her the Kit Kat bar (purely hypothetical.)  And for sure that is when you will see the mom whose five kids under five are behaving like angels, just to make you feel a little bit worse about yourself.

Then, as our kids get older, we hate saying no because we don’t want to lose them, so we give them what we think they want, just to hear that “I love you mommy” one more time.

But this is where the author is brilliant. By giving in after they beat us down, we do end up creating bullies. By definition “to bully” means to use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.

That is exactly what is happening in these types of parent-child relationships.

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I have seen a four-year old slap his mom across her face and not get more than a verbal reprimand (because I was there.) I watched a mom buy her son a violent Xbox game at Target because he was freaking out. And I cringed when a friend told me she extended her daughter’s curfew after she told her she hated her and wanted to move out. I believe my well-intentioned friend also took her shopping.

This leads me to offer the following non-professional, non-medical commentary/advice to anyone who gives in to their child’s bullying tactics:

1. I solemnly swear that if I see you at Trader Joe’s, Target or Toys ‘R’ Us (or anywhere else) and your child pitches a fit for any reason, I will personally applaud your efforts to hold strong. Seriously, I will be in the background cheering you on. There is no embarrassment in sticking to your guns. To me, there are times when parenting is about winning, and you should only be embarrassed if you let your kid beat you.

2. Kids, and especially tweens/teens, are so much smarter than we give them credit for. They smell fear and thrive when engaging in psychological war fare. You see, kids know that we all want to be good parents, and they know we are unsure about what we’re doing. When kids respond to our saying no or setting limits with “You are so mean,” or the crushing “I hate you,” it hits us right in the jugular. It makes us question ourselves as parents and the decisions we’re making on their behalf. Do we want to risk pushing our kids away? Do we want them to think we are uncool? Will they hate me forever or just until The Voice is over?

The answer is yes, so what, and probably not that long! Discipline is a gift we give our children that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. Limits are often about safety — for them and for others. Respecting (appropriate) authority and understanding rules will take them far. These are all important life skills.

Sometimes we have to parent blindly — but with resolve — knowing that we will make mistakes. But we cannot let our kids’ words and actions stray us from the course. Yes, we have to pick and choose our battles, but we have to come out on top at the end. It’s our duty as parents.

Because it is a war we are fighting to bring up good kids. In today’s 24/7 always-on culture, there is a lot of noise out there that children are exposed to each and every day, and if we don’t have control in our own homes, how can we expect our kids to have control out in the real world? If they think they can whine and cry to get their way with us as parents, how do you think they will act towards their teachers, their friends or their future employers?

I for one hope we stand shoulder to shoulder in this war, standing up to each and every bully. In turn, I hope we mold compassionate, kind adults.

Because I plan on winning this war. I hope you do to.

The author of the article, Dr. Robin Berman, is the author of a great book: Permission to Parent. It’s all about parenting with love and limits, which is a nicer companion to my post Why I Don’t Negotiate With Terrorists.

Does your kid bully you? What parenting tactics do you use to combat parental bullying?

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